Monday, May 4, 2009

Conflict in a small Asian country

The country in question gained independence in 1948, after many years of rule by foreign powers. Since then, two main sectors of the population have been fighting with each other. These groups differ in ethnicity, religion, and language. The dominant group views its connection to the land in both religious and political terms. The secondary group disputes these claims and prefers to refer to the country by its pre-independence name. It seeks to create an independent homeland within the country. The second group has created a militant organization to lead an armed struggle against its enemy. This organization is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other international actors. Both sides are frequently accused of abuses against civilians.

Of course, it would seem that I am talking about Israel. But, in fact, I am not. The country under discussion is Sri Lanka.

The similarities between the two conflicts are remarkable. The country has about 19 million people, 75% of whom are from the Sinhala ethnic group, and 20% of whom are Tamil, an Indian ethnic group (also found in southern India). The Sinhalese are Buddhists, the Tamils mainly Hindu. The Sinhalese espouse an ideology which has been referred to as 'Sinhalese political Buddhism', which views Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese Buddhist state. The Tamils have long complained about domination and oppression by the Sinhalese. Their militant wing, the Tamil Tigers (formally, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) are notorious for having pioneered the technique of suicide bombings, back before it took hold as a favored technique among Muslim terrorists. Sri Lanka is the name given to the country by its new Sinhala leaders some years after independence; the Tamils will often call it 'Ceylon', which was its name under the British.

In virtually each of the elements I've described, all you have to do is substitute the names and we could be talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Essentially, this shouldn't be a surprise. In both cases, we are dealing with relatively new countries emerging after decolonization. When both ethnic groups were subservient to the British, the ethnic tensions were more muted. Once the colonial rulers were no longer around, these tensions become more pronounced.

Since I learned about Sri Lanka in the late 80s, I've felt that it is a much better analog to the Israeli situation, rather than the South African analogy so frequently used by Israel's detractors. The key distinction, obviously, is how the international community has dealt with these long-running conflicts. In the case of the Tamils, there is no UN relief agency dedicated specifically to their needs; relatively few calls for their liberation on college campuses and in academia; few NGOs sending volunteers to shield the population from Sri Lankan army attacks; and - most significantly - no expectation that the Tamils will one day achieve statehood. This last point has been brought home in recent weeks. The conflict is entering what many reporters are calling its last phase: the Tigers are cornered in a small sector of the country, and the Army is pressing in on them. The assumption appears to be that the Tigers will be defeated and the conflict will soon be over.

Why? Why do the Tamils not deserve their own state, whereas the Palestinians do? Why is it OK for the Sri Lankan army to destroy the Tamil insurgency, without regard for the Tamils' right of self-determination?

I think it is important to think about this question. I invite your thoughts, and I plan to share mine in a follow-up post.


  1. Amazing comparison. I never knew about the Sri Lanka situation. Just discovered this blog today.

  2. you should submit this as an op-ed piece!!!